Jessel Recinos grew up on some of Honduras’ poorest and deadliest streets – and the country's ubiquitous gang violence nearly ended his life when he was still a kid.
But last week Recinos was honored at the State Department in Washington as an Emerging Young Leader –an exclusive group that this year includes 10 teens and young adults from places like France, Kenya and Burma. To understand how 24-year-old Recinos got there, first consider his odyssey, which WLRN chronicled last October as part of its Migration Maze series with the Miami Herald.
From that report:
Here’s the first thing to know about Jessel Recinos: He’s a breathtaking rollerblader.
Almost every day, Recinos skates in Cofradía Park in San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ second-largest city. He spins, makes hairpin turns and takes soaring jumps, his long locks blowing like wind socks. Kids scream his name as if he were a Honduran sports icon.
Here's the second thing to know about Recinos: He should probably be dead.
"These people come to kill me when I was 16 years old," he recalls in halting English.
Eight years ago, Recinos got involved with one of Honduras' maras — the vicious street gangs that rule whole districts of San Pedro Sula, which until recently had the highest murder rate of any city in the world. One day, a rival gang member hunted him down because he though Recinos had stolen his cell phone.
"I run, and he shot me five times."
Inside his parents' house, Recinos holds up his X-ray. A ghostly white spot indicates where a bullet lodged just next to his heart. After being shot, he staggered into a storefront Evangelical church, where congregants rushed him to a hospital. They also gave him this advice:
"You need to change your life. And I said, 'Yes, I promise."
So started Recinos' new life as a mentor on skates. He runs a club called Skate Brothers. It teaches kids to skateboard, rollerblade — and stay clear of the maras.
He's helped keep scores of at-risk Honduran youths in school — and away from the decision so many make to migrate to the United States.
Recinos stayed in Honduras even though his migrant cousins keep urging him to join them in Miami.
“If I go to the United States, I don’t help people,” Recinos says. “My country need help — help the little boys here.”
Recinos’ resolve has now caught the attention of Uncle Sam. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) says it’s looking at ways to support his effort and others like it in Honduras.
WLRN has learned that USAID is now partnering with Recinos and Skate Brothers. Their first big project: a $200,000 skate park in Cofradía outside San Pedro Sula on land donated by the Roman Catholic church.
Construction, which begins next month, will be overseen by local groups and will include a community center, basketball courts and soccer fields. It's slated to be completed by October.
Recinos spoke about it by phone with WLRN from Washington.
“I’m excited because we’re making the first skate park in all Honduras," he said. "When these people tell me we want to help you make a skate park, they made me cry.”
Poverty – and, more important, some of the world’s highest murder rates – keep pushing thousands of Central American migrants to the U.S. each year. And that can make a skate park as much a part of policy as play.
“It’s important," he said, "because Honduras needs to change, and it's the young people there who are changing the country.”
Consider how discredited Honduras’ current generation of leadership is. The Organization of American States, for example, is investigating a government scandal involving $350 million that was looted from the federal healthcare system — hundreds of thousands of which was used by Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández's 2013 election campaign.
So it makes all the more sense for countries like the U.S. to invest in the next generation of Honduran leadership – and especially folks like Recinos, who have actually lived the problems that rarely touch Honduras’ elite.
"This is a great opportunity to support real local Honduran leadership," says James Watson, who heads USAID in Honduras. "Jessel is the kind of person who took a real personal risk to confront the violence in [his] country."
Watson adds that Recinos is part of a young Honduran cohort — whose social media crusade last year sparked massive street marches against corruption — "who have different ideas and perspectives about change."
After Recinos left gang life, he decided to attend a bilingual school near his home. He started as a teenager in fourth grade.
“It was a little awkward," says Jim Walsh, a retiree who lives in Lake Placid, Fla. and at that time was a volunteer teacher at Recinos' school. "He was bigger and four or five years older than most of the kids in the class."
“But he was very smart. When I presented material, he would pick it up very quickly.”
Walsh then helped Recinos get a high school education – something only a third of Honduran kids are able to do.
One of Recinos' cousins in Miami is Brian Erazo. He’s an Uber driver – and he says Recinos' relatives here have changed their minds about convincing him to come to the U.S.
"The work he's doing back in Honduras," says Erazo, "is too important."
Recinos was one of two of the Emerging Young Leaders last week chosen to address the State Department ceremony. "The world won't be changed by armies or the sword," he said.
In Honduras, at least, it just might be changed by the skate.
For more information about Jessel Recinos and Skate Brothers, you can contact Recinos at firstname.lastname@example.org